The Cost of Empire

When he travels abroad, Barack Obama is the consummate pitchman. He tells stories, he cracks jokes, he delivers mini-lectures with a light touch — all in the service of selling product. It’s not an easy job. Imagine trying to sell GM cars after Ralph Nader’s attack on its Corvair in the 1960s, or shilling for Nestlé after the infant formula boycott of the 1970s and 1980s. Obama’s product — America — has taken a beating in the marketplace over the last eight years or so. The president has to do some serious rebranding.

Like any good ad-man, Obama does two things. He makes the audience feel good. But the people listening to him must also feel that something is missing in their lives, something that only Obama and his product can give them. If I get his product, the potential consumer thinks, perhaps I’ll be as young, handsome, talented, and powerful as he is.

In his address over the weekend to the Ghanaian parliament, the president was careful to emphasize that “Africa’s future is up to Africans.” The United States is all about respecting self-determination. “America will not seek to impose any system of government on any other nation,” he intoned. “The essential truth of democracy is that each nation determines its own destiny.”

We’re not telling you what to do, Obama insisted. But still, you have to get rid of your dictators, your corruption, and your bloody conflicts. And boy, do we have just the product for you!

Obama didn’t “apologize for the CIA’s role in overthrowing the democratically elected government of Ghanaian leader Kwame Nkrumah in 1966 to satisfy Cold War strategic interests,” as Foreign Policy In Focus contributor Charles Abugre recommended in What Obama Should Say in Africa. “While he’s at it,” Abugre writes, “he should apologize for the role the CIA played in removing Patrice Lumumba from power in 1960 and the resulting mess that is today’s Democratic Republic of the Congo.”

Obama saw no need to apologize for past product defects. He’s not peddling the ugly old empire that tortured people at the Guantánamo detention facility and the Abu Ghraib prison, meddled in elections past, and is embroiled in its own bloody and expensive conflicts. It’s Empire 2.0.

Well, of course, he didn’t say “empire.” That’s what rebranding is all about. Consider what the president had to say about one of the new services that Empire 2.0 offers: the Pentagon’s new U.S. African Command (AFRICOM). “Our Africa Command is focused not on establishing a foothold in the continent, but on confronting these common challenges to advance the security of America, Africa, and the world,” Obama said.

Partnership sounds nice. But as FPIF contributor Gerald LeMelle argues in Revealing the Real Africa Policy, the administration’s Africa agenda make “no reference to the recent FY 2010 budget that doubles the size of AFRICOM’s funds. Nor does it mention the doubling of financial support for counterterrorism projects throughout the continent — including increasing funds for weapons, military training, and education at a time when U.S. foreign aid money is stagnating.”

And despite his pointed remarks against dictators and military conflicts, Obama neglected to mention Uganda, where AFRICOM supports the Ugandan People’s Defense Forces (UPDF) with arms and training. “Northern Ugandans have innumerable stories about the abuses committed by the UPDF in their communities,” writes FPIF contributor Beth Tuckey in Denouncing Dictatorship in Uganda. “Although the UPDF’s behavior has been slightly better in recent years, it would be a mistake for the United States to train and equip such a force for combat. Museveni has shown no interest in relinquishing his presidency, and yet the United States continues to shower his so-called democracy with aid and military support.”

Let’s translate the ad-speak. Partnership means: We give you weapons and training and you give us oil. “The U.S. Africa Command claims to ‘help Africans help themselves,’” FPIF co-director Emira Woods writes in Obama Visits Africa’s ‘Oil Gulf.’ “The command lists humanitarian missions like dental clinics, building of schools, wells, etc. What is more opaque is the intent to train and arm proxy militaries that can secure and sustain the ever-present fix for the U.S. addiction to fossil fuels.”

In Nigeria, which will soon provide up to one-quarter of all U.S. imported oil, the government recently launched a full-scale offensive against armed resistance groups in the oil-rich Niger Delta. The Nigerian government receives official military assistance from the United States, as well as tens of millions of dollars in commercial U.S. military sales. “Peaceful resistance of minority ethnic groups across the Niger Delta has been met with brutal military repression and the broken promises of oil companies, with no opportunity for dialogue or genuine negotiation in 50 years,” writes FPIF contributor Kia Mistilis in Niger Delta Standoff. “In this environment, the armed resistance group, the Movement for the Emancipation of Niger Delta Peoples (MEND) emerged in 2006. The group targeted oil installations and caused a 40% drop in supply, from 2.4 million to 1.3 million barrels per day” (a 60-Second Expert version of her commentary is here).

So, the United States is indeed helping Africans help themselves…to natural resources and the labor of the disenfranchised.

And don’t forget the fine print at the bottom that tells you about the hidden costs to the U.S. taxpayer for military partnerships and access to oil. After all, the new African Command is only the tip of the imperial iceberg. According to a new FPIF Special Report by Anita Dancs, the United States is spending a quarter of a trillion dollars every year to maintain a global military presence. That’s $250 billion worth of troops, equipment, fleets, and bases.

“Military strategy documents ascribe the vast presence overseas to projecting power and countering threats outside of U.S. borders before they can enter within the border,” Dancs writes in The Cost of the Global U.S. Military Presence. “But as potential threats become increasingly nonconventional, defending the nation requires better intelligence, international policing, diplomatic efforts, and international cooperation, not a large military presence that irritates regional sensitivities.”

When he travels to Ghana and elsewhere, Obama isn’t only selling America to Africans. He’s selling the new and improved American empire to Americans. We’re the ones who have to pony up the $250 billion annual fee for this global garrison.

And like any good sales rep, he doesn’t give you the price up front. “Don’t worry,” he tells you, handing over a pen and the bill of sale. “You won’t have to pay immediately. Heck, you won’t even have to pay most of the debt. Those your kids over there? Let’s just make an extra copy of this agreement for them….”

A Better Rebrand

The Obama administration has a chance to refurbish the U.S. human rights record in a very concrete way. In 2006, the UN adopted the Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities. Guess who hasn’t signed on yet?

“Some 139 states have signed and 58 states have ratified the Convention, but not the United States,” report FPIF contributors Michael Stein and Janet Lord in Ratify the UN Disability Treaty. “Nor did the United States actively participate in or otherwise facilitate the CRPD’s negotiations and drafting, despite a wealth of technical expertise garnered from years of experience with the seminal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The Obama administration can use the opportunity of signing and submitting to the Senate for ratification the Convention as a means of reaffirming the commitment of the United States rejoining the global community generally, and to continuing American leadership in the area of disability law and policy.”

The United States could also take a stronger stand against the coup in Honduras. Despite the Obama administration’s condemnation of the military’s removal of Manuel Zelaya, “it was a full week before the United States announced it would slash aid to Honduras, and there have been no imminent signs of tougher sanctions. Unlike most Latin American countries, the United States has not withdrawn its ambassador from Tegucigalpa,” writes FPIF senior analyst Stephen Zunes in Showdown in Tegucigolpe. “The United States, which hosts a U.S. Southern Command task force at the Soto Cano Airbase, 50 miles northwest of Tegucigalpa, exerts enormous influence on Honduras. Therefore, the pressure pro-democracy forces in the United States can bring to bear upon our government may prove as crucial as the efforts of brave pro-democracy forces within Honduras.”

Keynes, Vultures, and Food Security

At its recent summit in Italy, the Group of Eight (G8) announced a food security initiative that will provide $20 billion over the next three years, much of it to Africa. Sounds good: but we’re losing the war on hunger.

“The number of hungry reached a historic high in 2009, with 1.02 billion people — one-sixth of humanity — going hungry every day,” writes FPIF contributor Anuradha Mittal in G8 Summit: Feed the Hungry or Fuel Hunger? “Despite an improved global cereal supply situation and a decline in international prices of most cereals from their highs in the first half of 2008, food prices remain high in developing countries. Thirty-two countries face acute food crises. The economic crisis has worsened the situation by further shrinking the purchasing power of the urban poor and subsistence farmers in poor countries.”

One way of addressing the issue of hunger is by clamping down on vulture funds. These are funds that buy up Third World debt cheap and then try to sue the original countries for the full amount plus interest. These are some of the poorest countries in the world. What’s the point of sending food aid if we allow these funds to funnel so much money out the back door?

“Representative Maxine Waters (D-CA) recently introduced the Stop VULTURE Funds Act (H.R. 2932) in the House of Representatives,” writes FPIF contributor Michael Stulman in Time to Clamp Down on Vulture Funds. “The legislation would limit the excessive profits that companies and hedge funds collect from poor countries by capping the interest amounts for which the companies could sue at 6% of the face value of defaulted debt. The legislation also increases transparency of these funds, requiring full disclosure from any investment operation that pursues vulture fund activity through the U.S. courts.”

In this time of economic crisis, John Maynard Keynes has become the go-to guy for stimulus spending rationales. But, as FPIF columnist Walden Bello points out, Keynes alone won’t pull us out of our current travails. “The deepening international crisis calls for severe checks on capital’s freedom to move, tight regulation of financial as well as commodity markets, and massive government spending,” Bello writes in Keynes: A Man for this Season? “However, the needs of the times go beyond these Keynesian measures to encompass massive income distribution, a sustained attack on poverty, a radical transformation of class relations, deglobalization, and perhaps the transcendence of capitalism itself under the threat of environmental cataclysm.”

Finally, I take a look at a small island between Japan and South Korea called Dokdo. The two countries have been sparring over ownership of this 56-acre island for the last half century. The two rocks that make up the island “don’t contain much in the way of valuable resources,” I write in Japan-ROK Relations on the Rocks. “They can’t support any habitation, though a South Korean couple lives there and relies on goods shipped in by the ferries that bring in thousands of South Korean tourists. South Korea has occupied the islands for decades, but Japan still claims them. The countries have waged a virtual war for this territory. They have battled with one another over maritime boundaries, map designations, postage stamps, and textbook descriptions.” How to solve this perennial problem? Follow the link to find out.

John Feffer is co-director of Foreign Policy In Focus.